by Justin Brady
This weekend I flocked to the theatre to watch Gravity with millions of others. I left the theatre inspired by this work of art and immediately ran home and pulled up my trusty film companion, Rotten Tomatoes. I dug through reviews and listened to Slate and NPR podcasts on the movie. Reading and listening to intelligent discussion of a movie is part of my film-going experience.
As someone engaged in the arts community, I find that most working in the art community approach critical reviews with fear. The perception being that a five star review can make a show, and a one star can break it. In reality, I have never seen a performance, movie or piece of art be universally praised or hated. There are always champions and critics of any work. Sure, in a crowded competitive field a review might help curate ones options, but it's only one of many factors in someone's decision to buy a ticket.
Gravity, for example, is a huge hit with a 98% rating on Tomatometer. Overall critics are saying GO SEE THIS FILM, but at the same time they are opening up a discussion on the movies faults. Rather than blindly praising it, they are also lampooning the hokey dialogue that keeps it from masterpiece status and poking at the plausibility of the realistic looking world it has created. Reading these pieces doesn't stop me from loving Gravity, it just demonstrates that the movie is worthy of discussion. I would say it even amplifies how tremendous the films strengths are that filmgoers can collectively look past these faults.
What true criticism does is help you better understand the piece. That's why I might skim a review before seeing a show, but after I see it is when I really dig in. Good arts criticism writing makes me better articulate what I loved about a piece or what went wrong. And when I don't agree with a critic, it still helps fill out my understanding of the piece. This is why I seek a variety of opinions. In the world of film reviews, a critic that has studied film can place a piece in context with similar works important to that field, whereas someone reviewing from a pop culture perspective might bring a fresh insight as to why a performance stands out in this moment.
As an arts community we need to better understand the place of criticism in it. Critics need to be encouraged to embrace their role in helping audiences better understand a piece and not fear giving criticism good or bad. Most the time in Indianapolis I can't have my Gravity experience and dig through a variety of viewpoints of a local performance. I am lucky if I get even one. This past month, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at the Phoenix Theatre drove almost every critic in town to review the show. There was an understanding that this performance was a central touch point in our Indianapolis theater season. Some reviewers loved it, some didn't. In my review I praised it, but still found fault with it. Regardless, it was refreshing to see a variety of viewpoints on one show.
Despite the decline in print reviews or official news media coverage, a savvy Indianapolis arts consumer can now seek out more arts criticism than ever with talented bloggers filling in the gaps.
In my opinion, these are some Indianapolis reviewers to follow:
NUVO (Various reviewers)
Mission Intrigue (Various reviewers)